Friday, September 24, 2010

"Ahead of her time: Bertha Palmer Then and Now"

Last Thursday evening, we hosted a program called "Ahead of her time: Bertha Palmer Then and Now," which was an exciting interdisciplinary event that brought out a very enthusiastic and engaged crowd to the Cook Theater at the FSU Center for Performing Arts.

More than a year ago, we were asked by the Bertha Palmer Executive Committee whether we might like to create programming focused on Bertha Palmer's ground-breaking speech at the 1893 World's Fair at the inauguration of the Women's Pavilion, for which she served as the head of the Board of Lady Managers. When I read the speech, I was astounded. Her words seemed to loom so much larger than the page. Here was a woman who was not afraid to share her unequivocal message of the importance of equality between the sexes at a public event, a world's fair to be exact! She notably said that with the appointment of the Board of Lady Managers, Congress had "finally discovered women." It was clear from her address that she felt that this was only the beginning of progress for women. She seemed to be throwing down the gauntlet that official recognition of the accomplishments of women from that point forward should not and could not be questioned.

And yet, as I read the speech, I realized that much of what was so striking was not just that she had the courage to say these words at a time when women didn't even have the right to vote, but also just how resonant and relevant those words are to our daily travails. These words called out to be spoken again. So, I set about trying to find an actress who would not impersonate Bertha Palmer but would rather embody her and allow her message to become at once historical and contemporary.

Local actress, Amanda Schlachter was the perfect person to breathe new life into the speech. She and I collaborated on the program, and she brought in her friend David Mercier, with whom she worked on a recent production, to work on the visuals. We chose images to reflect the period in which Bertha Palmer gave the speech, which alternated between portraits of refined ladies, many by one of my favorite artists of the period John Singer Sargent, and an array of photographs of women working in factories that David culled together. We combined those with images of the Women's Pavilion, which was an imposing building designed by a woman architect, Sophia Hayden, who was 24 at that time as well as artwork that hung in the Pavilion by female luminaries such as Mary Cassatt. With these images set to the music of "Claire de Lune," we hoped to ease the audience's minds back in time so that they would feel that they were listening to the speech at the World's Fair. But we also wanted that experience to be laced with the benefit of their knowledge of our collective history that followed the speech. So, we deliberately determined that Amanda would not be dressed in period costume but rather would be a modern woman delivering a timeless speech.

Amanda gave a brilliant delivery of the speech, which surely was more exuberant and drew more laughs than even Bertha Palmer's execution of her own words. Then, we cut to a fantastic song, by Raheem DeVaughn, called "Woman," a revelatory ode to the women to DeVaughn's life -- his wife and mother, which honors all women who bring life into the world. Together with the music, we cut to images of strong women who have had an impact on our culture, including politicians, journalists, artists, and leaders of movements. Some of the decisions were certain to be controversial, particularly including politicians from both sides of the aisle.

I then moderated a well-informed panel, including Amanda, who has been living with the words for the past several months; Professor Lynn McBrien from the College of Education faculty on our campus; and Janet Kahn, Executive Director of the Early Learning Coalition. Lynn teaches social foundations of education and also is a tireless advocate for refugees living in Africa. Janet is a local advocate for quality child care, which is truly one of the final frontiers to enable women to truly achieve gender equity. Without safe, affordable, quality child care, mothers and fathers are forced to make trade-offs between their careers and their children. As another important component, the lively audience became very involved in the discussion almost immediately, which made for an exhilarating evening.

We discussed the elements of this important speech in the context of today's society, and certain themes emerged. In a nutshell, Bertha Palmer delivered a twenty-five minute speech about the rights of women in our own country and abroad. The speech is noteworthy because of the length of her remarks, the unequivocal message that women ought to work "shoulder to shoulder" with men, and the fact that, as she said, women must "work or they must starve." She also seems to advocate that we become global citizens, attentive to the needs of women internationally. A well-traveled, international citizen herself, Bertha Palmer's vision that we consider the needs of others even beyond our borders is inspiring. She also talked about the myth of the "pedestal" and strongly advocated that those rare women wh0 have the benefits of wealth and power step down from those pedestals and consider the needs of others (she says, "freedom and justice for all infinitely more to be desired than pedestals for a few.") She concluded by saying that we ought to seek "an elevated womanhood" and work for the self-fulfillment of all of humanity. Her aspirational words continue to ring true today, and we must continue to work to reach this lofty vision.

I want to express my deep gratitude to all who were involved in making this program a reality. Of course, Amanda Schlachter for all her hard work helping to produce the event and for her wonderful performance; David Mercier for developing the visuals and sound for the event; and Brian Hersh, Director of Education for the Asolo Theatre Company, for all his support and for helping facilitate our use of the Cook Theater at the FSU Performing Arts Center, which was generously donated for our event. I also appreciated the wonderful contributions of panelists, Janet Kahn and Lynn McBrien. I hope to work with this dynamic team again!

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